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London Museum Provides Clear Focus on Films

November 05, 1989|PAT ALEXANDER and DICK ALEXANDER | The Alexanders are free-lance writers living in El Granada, Calif.

LONDON — One of the more memorable scenes of motion pictures past shows a gigantic ape atop the Empire State Building, swatting at an army of biplanes trying to shoot him down.

That scene, of course, was from the original "King Kong," the 1933 black-and-white Hollywood classic.

The "mighty Kong" was an 18-inch model with a jointed-steel skeleton, rubber muscles and a coat made of rabbit fur.

The movie makers used four such models, plus a full-scale head and hand for close-ups and for scenes when Kong was holding a screaming Fay Wray.

Kong's movements were achieved by the same technique used in animated cartoons--the model was moved slightly after each frame was exposed. And the climax atop the Empire State Building was a combination of miniatures, glass shots, painting and real and model aircraft.

The King Kong exhibit, complete with a miniature Kong on top of the Empire State Building, is only one of 52 exhibition areas at the Museum of the Moving Image here.

The exhibitions include such memorabilia as Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat and cane (Chaplin was born in East Street, Lambeth, about 1 1/2 miles from the museum); Fred Astaire's top hat and tails (he always wore dark blue because it photographed black); story boards from "The Wizard of Oz"; the bright-red couch that Salvador Dali designed to represent the lips of Mae West; a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe, and a 1930 REO Speedwagon used by "Movietone News," complete with camera mounted on top.

Housed in a steel-and-glass building in the South Bank arts complex under famed Waterloo Bridge, the Museum of the Moving Image is said to be the world's largest museum devoted to the history and future of movies and television. The museum has more than 70 computer-controlled video screens.

The museum is the manifestation of Leslie Hardcastle's 20-year dream to "trace the development of moving images--and tell the whole story of the development of cinema and television."

Opened in September, 1988, after an expenditure of 12 million (about $20.55 million U.S.), the museum is the product of its co-authors, National Film Theatre controller Hardcastle and National Film Archive curator David Francis, plus British Film Institute director Anthony Smith and designer Neal Potter.

Visitors first enter a "time machine" that goes back 5,000 years to the earliest moving images known, the shadow plays that probably originated in Java or India and were well known in ancient China.

The visitor gets to handle artifacts, watch films and push buttons, and hired actors direct guests about and explain the various instruments in the development of the moving image.

Among the machinery is an 18th-Century zogroscope, a magnifying glass for viewing engravings; an 1800 magic lantern; thaumotrope discs (circular cards with pictures on each side--a bird on one, for example, and a cage on the other; when you spin the threads attached to the cards, you put the bird in the cage); a photographic "gun" that shot 12 pictures a second on a circular photographic plate, and the mutoscope, whose principle is animating sketches or photos by rapidly turning over pages bearing successive images.

(I remember a miniature version I had as a youth. It was a series of photos of Babe Ruth at bat. About the size of a book of matches, it showed Ruth hitting a home run when you flipped through the pictures like you'd riffle a deck of cards.)

During your excursion into the cinematic past you'll find that the cinema was born Dec. 28, 1895, when the Lumiere brothers of Lyon, France, showed their films to a paying audience in Paris; early cinemas in America were the nickelodeons; "L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise" (1908) by the French Societe du Film d'Art was the first film to cast respected actors from traditional theater, and that Chaplin's "Modern Times" was banned in Germany and Italy for showing communist sympathies.

Besides the vintage instruments, which are the real stars of the museum, there are mock-ups and stage sets that re-create the cinematic ambience of yesteryear, like the spectacular Temple of the Gods, whose roof and pediments are supported by statues of Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Lillian Gish.

Paramount Pictures has an exhibit complete with art, makeup, script, costume, sound and camera departments, plus sound stage with booms, camera trucks and stage lights, and a full-size replica of a 1919 Russian railway car with footage and extracts from Soviet silent films.

You enter an Odeon movie house through a 1930s-style theater lobby.

In the animation section, children sit around a large table and are taught how to make their own sketches. After drawing a strip of pictures, the youths put the strips into a slotted cylinder to create the action. When they leave, they keep their film strips.

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